Used to be, you had to take one of those Alaskan cruises to be sure of sighting an American bald eagle in the wild, but thanks to vigorous conservation efforts, which have removed the eagle from the Endangered Species List, such sightings are more common now in the Lower 48. Birders, and many other fans of our national symbol, flocked to San Mateo County to watch these impressive birds do something they hadn’t done there in almost 100 years: build a nest.
The last recorded bald eagle next in the county was in La Honda back in 1915. But this past March, birder George Chrisman of Burlingame saw two eagles in a fir tree on the west side of the Crystal Springs Reservoir. He said he saw one of the birds take off and return with a big branch – a sure sign of nest construction. “I waited them out to see where they were building the nest.”
Chrisman spread the word through birding groups, and soon, those eager to see the eagles turned out in droves at a reservoir overlook staffed by Sequoia Audubon Society volunteers with spotting scopes. The site, just off Highway 280 in Burlingame, was ideal for spectators, who had a clear view of the birds in the nest on the other side of the reservoir.
Not all visitors were hard-core birders. The Gonzalez family made a Sunday trip there from Castro Valley. “It was great to see it,” said eight-year-old Noah Gonzalez after peering through a spotting scope to see an eagle. “I’ve never seen one before in my life.”
For about five weeks, there was always one eagle on the nest, and it looked like a hatching was imminent. But then a day came when no eagles were visible, then another day, then another. The adult birds had apparently abandoned the nest. It fell to Sequoia Audubon President Jennifer Rycenga and other volunteers to break the news to visitors. “It’s disappointing,” she told them, “but not that uncommon.” The experts chalked it up to inexperience on the part of the eagle couple making their first home, especially the young female.
Good news, though. Even with a nest failure, it’s very likely the birds will return next spring. Catherine Phillips, who came down to the viewing site from San Francisco, observed, “Eagles mate for life, and they return to the same nest year after year in their migratory pattern, so it’s just a matter of time before they’re back here.”
Those in the Bay Area who don’t want to wait for a bald eagle encounter can get one if they venture farther afield. A bald eagle pair has returned for several years to a nest atop a PG&E transmission tower at the Calaveras Reservoir northeast of Milpitas.